November 29, 2005

Acorn Characters

Agent 97, age eight, calls me outside to show me his acorn collection. We’ve got a slim young oak in the backyard and its acorns are small and perfectly formed, and whenever he steps on one on the lawn he picks it up and adds it to a little pile on the red paving stones.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, I do.”

And I tell him how I have always loved to look at trees, ever since I was in the carriage half a century ago, and how in every view of leaves and branches there’s more complexity than language can encompass. And I think, without telling him, how just looking at the difference between this leaf – about a third red, the green faintly spotted with brown – and that one – redder and browner and starting to curl, but with the light shining through it more strongly – you could find, if you took the time, so much individual variation that it would put to shame any writer’s attempt to draw a character. Just the difference between one wood chip and another, lying on the mulch pile, makes our literary creations seem thin and meager. Looking at trees you go past language, you see it all at once and, simultaneously, each part in its distinct separateness.

At which moment older brother Agent 95 comes up and picks up an acorn from the collection and instinctively makes a character out of it. “The Amazing Acorn Spies! They can change form at will!” He pulls the cap off his acorn so that it’s now bald instead of hairy. He moves the cap to the side of the acorn. “Ear covers!”

Then Agent 97 takes the tiniest acorn and turns it upside down: “A baby in a cradle! Waaah!”

Just try telling them that their characterizations lack subtlety!

Labels: ,